Parenting with TBRI
Updated: Feb 7
Today we turn to CCHO’s Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) expert to give us first-hand guidance on parenting. Sheila Wagler-Mills, LPCC-S, Regional Program Director for Encompass, is a TBRI Practitioner as well as a foster-and-adoptive mom. We asked her a series of questions about how to parent with TBRI.
How does compassion for self and child make a difference in parenting a child from hard places?
The key to compassion is through trust, which is often the greatest barrier for children from hard places. As parents of children from traumatic backgrounds, it’s important to recognize your child’s behavior as reflection of a need, that usually results from their trauma. It’s through being able to recognize their unique needs, understanding the why behind their behavior, and building trust that you will be able to use compassion to connect with them.
What’s one area where caregivers frequently apply the TBRI principles incorrectly?
There are three principles to TBRI: empowering, connecting, and correcting. Many times, parents see behavior first and want to go straight to correcting their child’s behavior. Again, the behavior that children with wounded hearts exhibit is most often a symptom of a need. And the need is most often motivated by fear.
Instead of attempting to discipline inappropriate behavior, caregivers can focus on healing by looking at behaviors as opportunities to discover and meet the child’s need. The challenges that children with trauma or insecure attachment have dealt with involved their whole self. TBRI attempts to address needs from a holistic view. The neural pathways in the child’s brain must be rewired by addressing needs and fears. By meeting a need, behaviors will often naturally decrease.
How can caregivers switch from the way they instinctually parent to a trauma informed/TBRI style?
It starts with mindful awareness of recognizing that parenting instincts are borne from their own experience. Parents of children with traumatic pasts must be aware of both their child’s experiences and the impact of their own histories, which may have also included brokenness. Parents must intentionally adjust their parenting instincts to meet their child’s needs. The caregiving a parent received may not be appropriate for the child they are raising.
There are a few questions to consider when parenting children from hard places. Why are they exhibiting this behavior? What is the need behind the behavior? What can the caregiver do to meet the need in this moment? And, what needs of the caregiver are coming to light in response to the child’s behavior?
How can parents advocate for their child or teen’s trauma/attachment/sensory needs at school/play?
Through providing education we can help our children’s teachers understand why a behavior is occurring and how to help meet their needs. We can help our children’s teachers know what they can expect from our children, such as aggressive behaviors in response to reminders of a history of abuse, or the need for fidgets and breaks to help with focus. It’s our role to protect and advocate for our children. When the parent and teacher become a team, we provide greater opportunities to help our children learn and heal.
How can a parent give their child a choice or compromise without feeling like they lost power in the situation? What does sharing power look like with an older child?
We do so by offering the child choices that are deemed appropriate by the parent or caregiver. Give the child choices, but choices that are healthy and appropriate. When parents share their power, it proves it was theirs in the first place. Sharing power allows for more yeses for the child and helps to build trust and disarm fear. Yeses and compromises also allow for practice in negotiation and giving our child a voice. It’s an important teaching tool. Shared voice facilitates the TBRI principles of connecting and empowering.
As a foster-to-adopt parent, what parenting change, based on TBRI, have you made that has had the most notable impact with your kids?
Learning about my own attachment style and needs. Parenting styles are determined by how we were parented as a child, so by understanding our attachment style, it helps us to understand what we bring to the table in our child’s care.
For foster-to-adopt parents, our children have experienced another life outside of our own, so we must also consider what they bring to the table, and how their needs will intersect with our own. Their past traumas can bring to light triggers in our own lives. The importance of understanding my own attachment history has had more of an impact on my parenting than anything else I have done. It allows me to respond to my own needs and be a better parent to all of my children—foster, adopted and biological, and to respond to their needs rather than becoming triggered by their behaviors.
What are the top three life-value scripts you use when parenting? Talk to us about the importance of the words and how you choose them.
1) Can you say that again with respect?
2) Are you asking or telling?
3) Can you use your words?
Bonus: Kind hands, kind words.
Not all scripts work for each family and household, so it’s about what this particular child needs to meet their needs and doesn’t trigger them. Scripts should be short and to the point. If too many words are used, the meaning is lost, especially if the child is dysregulated, as our brains don’t function optimally when we are triggered.
What percentage of the time do you have to parent with TBRI correctly to see change?
TBRI research tells us that we must only parent effectively 30% of the time for the approach to have a positive impact. We’re all human, we make mistakes and we fail sometimes. No one will be or has had perfect parents, not even those who grew up in good, attachment-rich families. We’re all broken in some way, and we all have needs.
The good news is we all have opportunities to redo poor behavior or words. Although we can’t go back and change the timeline, by offering and/or asking for a redo, caregivers teach children how to manage mistakes and provide learning opportunities in making compassionate choices.
TBRI is full of good news—hope for connecting with a child you care so much about. Learn more about ways to parent with TBRI in the book, The Connected Parent. Our clinical team would be honored to support you as you implement these principles in your home and family life. Our next interview-style post will further highlight parental self-care—another important strategy in loving youth with trauma.